Today (August 5) in London History – The Last Victorian Courtesan

Skittles – the last Victorian courtesan – died on August 5, 1920. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Well, if the 1911 Census Return is anything to go by she was still putting it about when she was 70 years old. And good on her, I say.

I have to say, that Census Return is one of my all-time favourites.

To start with, Catherine – that was her name, and you’ll have to be patient – I’m going to make this one a bit of a striptease – you’ll find out in due course what her last name was – and indeed her nickname – and indeed who she shagged, well, some of them at any rate – but anyway, to start with, Catherine, bless her heart, just as a matter of course tells the Census officer a big fib about her age. She tells him she’s ten years younger than she was. Tells him she’s 61. She was 71 – not far off from 72. But never mind. More power to her.

And what else do we learn from that treat of a Census Return? Catherine was living in a 10-room house in toniest Mayfair. 15 South Street, Park Lane, to be exact. She had three servants: a housekeeper and two housemaids. Her occupation – the means by which she supported herself and her household – well, under the Heading Occupation Catherine writes “private means”.

Catherine has nine more years to live – she dies on August 5th, 1920. August 5th, today. That’s why she’s the solo act in this podcast. Anyway,  when she died, probate tallied up her wealth as £2,764 pounds. Almost exactly a third of a million pounds in today’s money. So she wasn’t short of a bob, she did have private means. 

I say Catherine’s the solo act in this podcast, but she had a very impressive supporting cast. Including an overnight visitor on Sunday, April 2, 1911. Census Return night.

The overnight visitor was a 73-year-old barrister named Edward Divett. 

Well, maybe Edward was an old family friend. Or Catherine’s lawyer and everything was prim and proper.

I like to think not. I quite fancy the idea of those septuagenarians romancing one another. 

And that’s Catherine in her sunset years. Let’s now go back to Catherine in her prime.

We get a very good idea, I think, of her beauty, her charms, her mystique – the spell she cast over the male sex – by a poem the young British poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote about her. He was one of her many admirers. They had an affair. Indeed, he fell deeply in love with her. And they remained on good terms for the rest of her life.

The poem is a thing of wonder, of beauty. The payoff comes in the last two lines.

The poem is called

With Esther

It reads as follows:

HE who has once been happy is for aye
Out of destruction’s reach. His fortune then
Holds nothing secret; and Eternity,
Which is a mystery to other men,
Has like a woman given him its joy.
Time is his conquest. Life, if it should fret.
Has paid him tribute. He can bear to die,
He who has once been happy! When I set
The world before me and survey its range,
Its mean ambitions, its scant fantasies,
The shreds of pleasure which for lack of change
    Men wrap around them and call happiness,
The poor delights which are the tale and sum
Of the world’s courage in its martyrdom;

When I hear laughter from a tavern door,
When I see crowds agape and in the rain
Watching on tiptoe and with stifled roar
To see a rocket fired or a bull slain,
When misers handle gold, when orators
Touch strong men’s hearts with glory till they weep,
When cities deck their streets for barren wars
 Which have laid waste their youth, and when I keep
Calmly the count of my own life and see
On what poor stuff my manhood’s dreams were fed
Till I too learn’d what dole of vanity
Will serve a human soul for daily bread,
—Then I remember that I once was young
And lived with Esther the world’s gods among.

Ok, so much for the dance of seven veils.

Who’s Catherine.

Her full name was Catherine Walters. Her nickname was Skittles.

She was, according to her biographer, The Last Victorian Courtesan.

She was born in Liverpool. The third of the five children of Edward Walters, a customs employee and his wife Mary Ann.

She grew up in dockside Liverpool. She had three qualities that got her out of there: her exceptional beauty, her practical nature and her riding skills, acquired while working in a livery stable. 

As for that nickname, Skittles, that came about because as a youngster she’d earned a few pennies by setting up the skittles in a local bowling alley.

In the blunt words of her biographer, “she never looked like a whore.  She dressed with an unexpected decorousness. But there was nothing decorous about her talk: she was effervescent, outspoken, bawdy. Her naturalness was one of her chief attractions. Unlike so many prostitutes, she remained affectionate and sympathetic. 

The journalist Henry Labouchere said of her, ’She was the only whore in history to retain her heart intact.’

She was, according to biographer Theo Aronson, “cheerfully amoral. Just 16, she became the mistress of George, Lord Fitzwilliam, master of the Fitzwilliam hounds. He set her up in London and, on finally parting from her, made her a generous settlement.”

And so Skittles was launched. She was one of the celebrated “horse-breakers” who paraded in Hyde Park. She was so beautiful and rode so well she became the talk of the town. 

The parade of lovers followed as a matter of course. One of the first to get there was Spencer Cavendish, Lord Hartington, the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire. By 1859 – Catherine was 20 years old – she was his mistress. He’d installed her in a Mayfair House and set her up with a very allowance. 

Other lovers included – no surprise this – the Prince of Wales. The prince sent his own doctor to attend Catherine when she was ill. 

In the words of Theo Aronson,

“The Prince of Wales’ letters to her were so confidential that once, when she was thought to be dying, he had his private secretary go calling, collect and destroy over three hundred of them.”

Once in situ there at 15 Park Street, Mayfair, London, she stayed for the rest of her life – nearly 50 years under that roof, in that boudoir, entertaining a varied circle of men. Her afternoon tea parties were famous. Her guests included Prime Minister Gladstone, though there’s no evidence that the two of them ever left the drawing room for the bedroom. I half wonder, when I go by her house, do any of the well-heeled guests having tea at the Dorchester have any idea about those tea parties back in the mists of time at nearby 15 South Street, Park Lane, Mayfair, London. I shouldn’t think so. 

And anybody musing about those circles and this – how shall I put this? – sphere of human activity you could just as well also mark out the building, in Park Lane, not far from Skittles’ house, the building where Dodi Fayed played host, shall we say, to Diana, Princess of Wales, that long ago, long lost summer, 25 years ago now.

London, it’s full of connections.

Anyway, Rest in Peace, Skittles. 

A Today in London recommendation? Well, the connection in this podcast is going for ride – yes, horseback riding – in Hyde Park. Get in touch with the Hyde Park Stables. And you’re away.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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